As a chef, Julia Child made no claims for herself as an innovator: Her mission was not to create new recipes, but to interpret and archive age-old French ones in ways the average American home cook could tackle without fear. Given her dual priorities of traditionalism and accessibility, then, she might well have appreciated “Julia,” a bright, cheerful, audience-friendly overview of Child’s life and legacy that steers fastidiously clear of any unexpected insight or information on a well-documented subject.
Docmaking duo Julie Cohen and Betsy West previously scored an Oscar nomination for “RBG,” a similarly upbeat, uncomplicated portrait of another iconic American woman, and — save for the addition of much butter-varnished gastroporn photography — they haven’t significantly changed the recipe here. There’s nothing especially wrong with that: Child was a broadly entertaining public personality, and the film is broadly entertaining in turn, zipping through her eventful, rather inspiring life story — from sheltered youth to late-blooming sensualism to unlikely middle-aged celebrity — at a lively pace, full of attractive asides about evolving food culture from the past to the present. That approach, peppered with talking-head contributions from culinary personalities like Ina Garten and André Cointreau, will go down particularly well with mature, nostalgic audiences when Sony Pictures Classics releases the film on Nov. 5.
But it’s a little disappointing that anyone with even a working knowledge of Child is unlikely to emerge from “Julia” having learned anything new — or at least, nothing more surprising than a couple of tasteful nude photos from the Child archives. Cohen and West hold their subject in palpable esteem and affection, but their perspective is scarcely more probing than Nora Ephron’s fictionalized 2009 comedy “Julie & Julia,” in which Meryl Streep’s full-bore performance gave many younger audiences their first sense of Child’s eccentric screen presence.
Oddly, and somewhat pointedly, Ephron’s film, and the bestselling book on which it was based, are entirely ignored in the doc’s discussion of Child’s cultural impact. Dan Aykroyd’s fruity Child impression for “Saturday Night Live,” on the other hand, rates multiple mentions. (Child herself was a big fan, we are told.) Indeed, the most interesting passages of “Julia” cover the gradual creation of her much-parodied television presence, beginning spontaneously (and in her late forties) with the low-budgeted limitations of public educational broadcasting, before being honed into a more polished, knowingly comedic act by the time she graduated to the likes of “Good Morning America.”
Before we get to that, however, the film offers a rundown of her pre-celebrity life, as interviews with friends and next-generation family members add a little intimacy to otherwise standard-issue biographical tone. (The film was chiefly drawn from Bob Spitz’s authoritative biography “Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child.”) Cohen and West touch tactfully on the extreme wealth of her family, which Child herself downplayed — one interviewee tartly notes that Child and her mother alike had no need of learning to cook — while her father John McWilliams’ emotional remoteness and rigidly Republican politics are also stressed.
It was joining the Office of Strategic Services during the Second World War, the film suggests, that was the making of Child’s hitherto unadventurous life. Ensuing travels awakened her fascination with international culture and cuisine — and introduced her, while in Ceylon, to her future husband Paul, a politically liberal, artistically-minded civil servant who successfully converted the younger, conservatively raised woman to his pleasure-seeking way of living.
A spell of living in France cued Child’s enrolment at the Cordon Bleu, and the rest is history — though the doc sort of treats it that way, dutifully filling in the details of her early culinary career and the painstaking writing of her seminal, name-making volume “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” without doing much to enliven it — save for quickfire recipe vignettes, richly shot by Claudia Raschke, that walk us through the basics of making a sole meunière, or a boeuf bourguignon, the Child way. (The secret, and it’s no secret, tends to be industrial quantities of butter.)
Away from the kitchen, much of the film is consumed with her and Paul’s lifelong misfit romance, supplemented with extracts from their correspondence, ornamentally handwritten on screen. (Such flourishes, along with Rachel Portman’s somewhat over-present score — heavy on obvious accordion cues whenever the action turns to France — lends the film a general air of cuteness.) The chosen quotes are more colorful than revealing, though it is amusing to read Paul’s prescient observation, shortly after their initial meeting, of her “slight atmosphere of hysteria, giggling wildly, which gets on my nerves.”
Any closer-to-the-bone insights into her private life, meanwhile, are not on the menu — unsurprising, perhaps, given the involvement of multiple family members as producers, though certain intriguing threads are only tentatively pulled. It’s hinted that Child, content as a homemaker even after her career eclipsed her husband, wasn’t an overt believer in feminism, but was firmly pro-choice. It’s mentioned, too, that she held homophobic beliefs prior to becoming an AIDS activist in the 1980s, before the subject is swiftly dropped in favor of further generic “food is love” appraisals from her acolytes. “Julia” offers us glimpses of a complex, brittle personality beneath the robust persona, but is either too cautious or too genuinely besotted with the latter to pry it out.